I have to be honest: This isn’t the homily I was planning to preach this weekend.
But Wednesday changed everything.
We’ve seen the pictures, heard the bulletins, watched the reporters on TV wearing helmets and bright blue vests marked PRESS.
We’ve seen the tanks rolling toward Kyiv and the cars lined up for miles trying to get out of the country.
We’ve seen the images of mothers desperate to leave on foot, pushing their children in strollers through the cold.
We’ve watched artillery fire light up the night sky and we’ve heard the explosions, and we’ve felt our lips form the words, “Oh my God.”
We are watching a tragic moment in history unfold before our eyes, in real time. We feel a sense of despair and helplessness, and we see again and again the same three words scrolling through on Facebook or Twitter:
“Pray for Ukraine.”
Reading some of the news stories over the last few days, you realize just what is at stake — and just what defines the people of Ukraine. This is a moment when we are being reminded again and again of resilience, and fortitude, and faith.
CNN cameras showed a group of people gathered in a public square kneeling to pray in the first hours of the invasion.
Those are the people we see. But there are so many others we don’t.
For decades, the church in Ukraine was an underground church — forced to worship in secret when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.
Now, the church is underground again — literally.
People are seeking shelter and safety in train tunnels and church basements. In some places, they are preparing to turn churches into hospitals, if needed. One priest in a suburb of Kyiv said that a rocket attack near his church had killed seven people. Dozens ran to the parish looking for shelter. He said they have 80 people living in the basement.
“Some,” he said, “have come to us to make their confession. They want to be ready for death.”
While tens of thousands are trying to get out of the country, one group isn’t.
The clergy and religious.
Many of the Greek Catholic priests in the country are married, with families. But they are staying. The bishops are even sending more priests into the most troubled regions, so that parishes keep functioning. One religious brother said, “We don’t have time to be frightened. We are staying and helping people to survive the situation.”
Bishop Jan Sobilo in Eastern Ukraine said he has no intention of leaving.
“I came here to serve the people,” he said. “This terrible time of war must also turn itself into a blessing, so that goodness and love win.”
When we pray for Ukraine, we are praying for people like him.
When we pray for Ukraine, we are praying for the country’s Major Archbishop, Sviatoslav Shevchuk in Kyiv. He was scheduled to attend a meeting in Italy next week. Instead, he is staying in Kyiv to be with his people.
Right now, he is living in a shelter in the basement of the Cathedral of the Resurrection in Kyiv. Friday, he got a phone call from Pope Francis, who offered his support and told the archbishop he would do everything he could to try and end the crisis.
Archbishop Shevchuk videotaped a message for his people from the church bunker.
“In this tragic time,” he said, “all our hopes are in God. We pray for peace in Ukraine. We pray for those who defend us.”
When we pray for Ukraine, we pray for religious sisters setting up shelters for refugees. As one of them said, “This is our new mission, to welcome the refugee.” We pray for anxious parents comforting their children. We pray for fathers and even grandfathers lining up to become soldiers.
But we also remember the words we heard just last week in the Gospel.
This is one of the hardest things to do, for all of us, especially now:
Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you.
Pray for the enemies of Ukraine. Pray for conversion of hearts.
Pray, as the bishop said, that goodness and love win.
Ultimately, we need to pray for our suffering world — and that we can somehow be instruments of healing and hope.
On this last Sunday before Lent, the Gospel we heard a few moments ago offers us a challenge for Ash Wednesday and the days ahead. It calls us to do something radical.
Jesus says: “Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.”
We often have so many beams blocking our vision. Pride. Anger. Fear. Sin. Removing them is not easy. It’s painful. But this is part of what Lent is about. It’s about doing what we need to do to see clearly, to live humbly, to give generously, to love more deeply. And in all that, to draw closer to the God who loves us.
It’s about striving to be the disciples of Jesus Christ that we want to be — and becoming the blessed peacemakers we are called to be.
Pope Francis has called for a worldwide day of prayer and fasting on Ash Wednesday — asking both believers and non-believers to be united in one purpose, for one goal.
Pray and fast for peace.
In all this, we need to hold on to this one virtue that we Christians can never abandon: hope.
How do we do that?
A few years ago, Pope Francis offered advice on “teaching hope” during his General Audience. I think we need these words now, as we stand at the threshold of Lent during a time of war.
“Work for peace among people,” he said “and do not listen to the voice of those who spread hate and discord. As different as they are from each other, human beings were created to live together. In conflicts, be patient: one day you will discover that each person is the custodian of a fragment of truth.
“Love people,” he continued. “Love them one by one. Respect everyone’s journey, because everyone has their story to tell. Each of us too has our own story to tell. Every child born is the promise of a life which once again reveals itself to be stronger than death. Every love which springs up is a power for transformation which yearns for happiness.”
The Holy Father concluded:
“Jesus has given us a light which shines in the darkness: defend it; protect it. That single light is the greatest treasure entrusted to your life.”
I think that when we are praying for Ukraine, we are also praying for that light. That penetrating love.
Let this be our deepest and most important intention: May that light of Christ burn brightly, fearlessly, in the parts of the world that seem overwhelmed by darkness.
May we work to nurture that light in ourselves and bring it to others.
As we prepare to receive the Eucharist, we prepare for the days ahead with faith and trust, remembering our brothers and sisters half a world away. We come forward with our hands outstretched, asking for God’s mercy for us and our world.
And we ask this: may the mother of light, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Queen of Peace, intercede for the people of Ukraine today and always.